August 16, 2007 11:57 AM PDT

Father of the compact fluorescent bulb looks back

Consumers with an eye to conserving energy may be snatching those swirly compact fluorescent bulbs off store shelves now, but 30 years ago they were barely a shade away from crazy.

"I was given a number of reasons why it wouldn't work," said Ed Hammer, a retired General Electric engineer who invented compact fluorescent while working at the company in the 1970s. "I was told it could be a little better than an incandescent bulb, but that was about it."

Ed Hammer
Courtesy of Ed Hammer
Ed Hammer and the first
compact fluorescent bulb.
Critics said it couldn't be done.
But by carefully spacing the
spirals, Hammer was able to
avoid reflective losses and
come out with a bulb that
could light a room.

Instead, increasing energy costs have made Hammer's invention a quickly growing part of the consumer market. Household CFLs operate on 13 to 25 watts of energy, far less than 60- to 100-watt incandescent bulbs, and thus have become a favorite with consumers trying to curb energy costs. The bulbs also last far longer than standard incandescent bulbs. Although the bulbs contain mercury and thus aren't supposed to be thrown away with the regular trash, sales are climbing. Sales could climb further if legislation pending in various jurisdictions banning incandescents passes.

CFLs will face heated competition with light-emitting diodes, but right now the price of LED lights is fairly high.

GE assigned Hammer to work on energy efficient bulbs at its labs in Nela Park, Ohio, during the first U.S. energy crisis in the mid-'70s. His first invention was a standard-shaped 40-watt fluorescent lamp, called the F-40 Watt Miser, in 1973. To lower the power consumption, Hammer changed the gas used and tweaked various components inside the lamp.

Next came the CFL. Bulbs and fluorescent light, however, are not a natural combination. Fluorescent lights are ordinarily tube-shaped. Curving them into a bulb shape creates reflective losses, i.e. light that shines from one part of the tube gets deflected by a nearby spiral.

Through a lot of trial and error, he came up with a way to space the spirals far enough apart to minimize losses without also losing a bulb-like shape. Many manufacturers have tried different designs, but the shape Hammer coined remains dominant.

Hammer invented the bulb in 1976, he said, and primarily worked alone. (Editor's note: the years reflect the time Hammer says he invented the bulbs, not when GE announced them.) The original prototype is in the Smithsonian.

Although executives at GE liked the idea, they decided not to market it at the time. CFLs would require entirely new manufacturing facilities, which would cost $25 million. "So they decided to shelve it," Hammer said.

The electronics giant contemplated licensing the design. Unfortunately, the design leaked out. Others copied it before GE started a licensing program.

"That's how it became widespread," he said. Still, "it has been a big hit for GE."

Hammer hasn't done badly either. He has published more than 40 papers and was awarded the Edison Medal by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 2002.

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General Electric Co., Ohio, energy, design, light-emitting diode


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Shouldn't we be moving to LEDs?
While I applaud the conservation mindset that led to growth of alternatives to incandescent bulbs, I am concerned about disposal of more and more compact flourescents. I would rather see us move toward fitting LEDs for our lighting needs, requiring even less power than CF bulbs and further limiting the impact of old bulbs on landfills (since they are even smaller than CFs and potentially have a much longer useful life).
Posted by HikingStick (4 comments )
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Just too expensive
LED light bulbs are available I believe, just extremely rare. The main problem is that they are just too expensive. I expect them to be mainstream within the next 5 years as manufacturing costs go down, but for now the industry is kind of stuck. There certainly is major research going into making them more efficient already though.
Posted by tobart (24 comments )
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LED's for space lighting are cost prohibitive
Go check any online sources for alternative lighting and you'll see the outrageous prices for a 30 lumen LED bulb. Definitely for the bleeding green-edge folks out there.
Posted by cubesquared (12 comments )
Link Flag
LED's are poisonous too
LED's used for lighting generally contain arsenic - so they are also a disposal problem. Efficiency is similar; lifetime is a bit better. They are far more adjustable and can be run a dim levels efficiently. CFL's are pretty much just as good for most people.
Posted by Andrew Wolfe (28 comments )
Link Flag
I haven't yet seen comparisons on the amount of potentially hazards materials contained in both, or which requires less energy to manufacture. If LED's win on both counts, then I'd be happy to switch.
Posted by arjay67 (4 comments )
Link Flag
"Unfortunately, the design leake"
I guess that's wrong. Looks like fortunate that the technology leaked and became widespread instead of staying unused on the GE's shelve for who-knows how many more years or decades.
Technology thiefs might prove beneficial sometimes :)
Posted by rapidbunny (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Thanke ye squire
My olde time fingers move a'miss sometimes!
Posted by michael kanellos (65 comments )
Link Flag
CFLs: Good, but not the Cat's Meow
I have recessed "canned" lighting fixtures throughout my house that are designed for 65-watt R30 floodlight bulbs. As the existing incandescent bulbs burn out, I typically replace them with 14-watt CFLs to benefit from their reduced energy consumption. Unlike some fluorescent fixtures these CFLs have no detectable flicker, and at full luminosity they outshine 65-watt incandescents with a very pleasant, bright-white light.

In my experience, however, CFLs have shortcomings that make them imperfect replacements for incandescents. Once you flip the switch, many CFLs flicker or stay dark for several moments before they light up -- behaviors that are surprisingly annoying. Alternative "instant-on" CFLs typically start instantly, but at greatly reduced luminosity, taking a minute or two to reach their full brightness. Although they are harder to find, I prefer the "instant-on" variety. But because they are so dim when they start off, I prefer to have at least one incandescent in a room to provide instantly bright light.

Additionally, although CFLs are supposed to last much longer than incandescents, some fail prematurely -- and too many failures will significantly undercut the cost benefit of their reduced energy consumption.

The other major shortcoming of CFLs is that they contain mercury. No matter how many warnings people are given about "proper disposal", the vast majority will still end up in the household trash when their useful life has ended. And it is worth asking what the proper clean-up procedure is should you ever break one.

While I think the benefits of CFLs outweigh their shortcomings, I am adamantly opposed to proposed laws mandating their use. Reasonable skepticism recognizes that those in the CFL supply chain will profit enormously from CFL mandates, without the trouble of having to convince consumers of the value of their products. In the free market, people are free to choose CFLs if CFLs make sense to them, and that is as it should be. That marketplace competition is what will drive production efficiencies, cost reductions, and improvements -- something that will benefit everyone.
Posted by Techno Guy (77 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Most now instant on?
A previous poster complained about the lag. I had tried CFLs a
long time ago and found that very annoying. But I was pleasantly
surprised when I recently converted a bunch of lights in my
place to the latest CFLs (from GE I think) -- the are pretty much
"instant on", and I don't notice that they start out dim (although
maybe they do and I didn't notice).

One major remaining disadvantage: the standard CFLs are not
dimmable, and I'm a dimmer fanatic, so I can only replace about
1/2 my bulbs. Also, the 3-way is a huge monster that is much
bigger than the incandescent version, and it sticks out the top of
torchieres etc.

I just bought a bunch of LED-based nightlights to replace my
incandescent ones (hey, 2-4 x 4W, adds up over time!) and am
not too happy, since they give off a goulishly blue light. Bigger
models intended for household use had better get the spectrum
Posted by baisa (126 comments )
Link Flag
More Liberal media preening over enviro causes
This story has no effect on anything, other than to try to alter the culture to make environmentalist rock stars. Social engineering by the media.
Posted by gerhard_schroeder (311 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Um, no.
There's no problem with the story. The problem is your paranoia.

Please, go crawl back into your cave and stop polluting public
Posted by House_of_Mirth (3 comments )
Link Flag
Blah Blah Blah
More drivel from "The Agenda-izers".
Posted by arjay67 (4 comments )
Link Flag
Damn all those liberals, using less electricity and saving money on their electric bills. AND don't forget, lowering energy usage means fewer new power plants have to be built, which keeps per kwh rates low. AND the LIBERAL MEDIA goes and congratulates them on on it! Well dammit, I'm going to go give my life savings to Halliburton and Exxon! That'll show those liberals! Ha! Take that LIBERAL MEDIA!

I think you should stop stealing Rush's drugs. Look how bad they've messed him up.

It's just another example of how neoconservatives aren't conservative at all. In contrast, my gradmother is a life-long Republican and is very strongly against wasting anything. Somebody better tell her that most of her party doesn't believe in conserving anymore.

Neocon slogan: "I'm a conservative and I hate the LIBERAL MEDIA! Now let's go waste stuff!"
Posted by chris_d (195 comments )
Link Flag
No effect on anything?
Really? No effect on anything?

Why don't you go and have a look at a few glaciers and tell us that there is no effect on anything?
Posted by cturkin (59 comments )
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I wish we could filter sub agenda blather
What exactly is your blather about anyway? You sem off center and lacking perspective re lighting and CFLs.
Posted by eeemang (217 comments )
Link Flag
Re:More Liberal media preening over enviro causes
Where does this article say anything about environmentalism or liberal ideology?

What I got out of it is that the bulbs have gained popularity because they use less energy and last longer and that saves consumers money.

If saving money is viewed as part of the liberal agenda these days then go ahead and call me a liberal because I love saving money.
Posted by pctec100 (105 comments )
Link Flag
Unfortunately, the major beneficiaries of this craze is the Chinese Military Industrial complex. They ship over boatloads of these bulbs, we ship back boatloads of cash.
Posted by gggg sssss (2285 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I will not buy compact flourescent bulbs or anything else from China. Does anyone know a non-chinese manufacturer of compact flourescent bulbs?
Posted by J-G-Spears (1 comment )
Link Flag
Rolling in his own sh**
He won't stop polluting public discourse. He's one of those people who not only lives in his own sh** by choice, he also loves rolling in other people's offal. Being a conservative ... it's sad and ironic that "conservative" and "conservation" seem to be antonyms ... he KNOWS that other people should live and think the same way he does and if they don't, they should be jailed.
Posted by dvthex (18 comments )
Reply Link Flag
My comment above was intended to be a reply to House_of_Mirth's reply to gerhard_schroeder's "More Liberal media preening over enviro causes" post.
Posted by dvthex (18 comments )
Link Flag
Where do you come up with this stuff?
Posted by arjay67 (4 comments )
Link Flag
CFL lifetime greatly exaggerated
I buy them but remain a skeptic. For starters, they claim to have a lifetime of 7 years. Hahahahahahahaha! That's a good one! How about 1 year? Somebody should start a class action lawsuit regarding false lifetime claims for CFLs.
Posted by dmm (336 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: CFL lifetime greatly exaggerated
You must be buying some cheap made in China bulbs. I have some in my home that burn 8 - 12 hours per day and I just lost the first one after 6.95 years.
Posted by arjay67 (4 comments )
Link Flag
The problem with lifetime
The issue of shorter lifetime doesn't have to with the advertised lifetimes nor the build quality of the CFL. The issue is more about the quality of power coming into the home. CFL are sensitive to fluctuations in voltage that power them. Even small spikes in voltage or under voltage can shorten their lifetimes by a bit. The ability of the CFL to handle these fluctuations has improved in the last 2 years.
Posted by drewbyh (91 comments )
Link Flag
Depends on how you use it
Fluorescents are sensitive to power on-off cycles. The more you turn them on and off, the shorter the lifespan.
Fluorescents should be used in lamps that have an average of at least 3 hours a day of usage. They should be turned on at dust, then turned off at bed time (or left on over night). In an office setting, turned on in the morning, and off after the cleaning crew leaves.
Fluorescents should not be used in bathrooms, motion sensor lights, or other cases where they will remain on for a only a short time.
Posted by javaman97 (23 comments )
Link Flag
LED's are the future.
Anyone see recent LED flashlights? I was at the sporting good store just yesterday lusting over new flashlights. (I like gadgets) The new LED flashlights are far brighter than the old ones (like I have) In the end I couldnt justify buying another flashlight since I already have so many of them.

Since they are on a different wavelength the light doesnt travel as far, but along with the brightness, I believe this will change as well in time.

LED's lightbulbs are coming soon.

BTW speaking of outdoor lights, why dont more people say anything about light pollution? All outdoor streetlights need to have downward light reflectors.

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Posted by kieranmullen (1070 comments )
Reply Link Flag
physics lesson
'since they are on a different wavelength the light does not travel very far'?

What are they teaching in school these days? Very few wavelengths are impeded in our atmosphere, due to absorption. The mundane wavelengths which emanate from our everyday products do just fine, thank you.
Posted by Rick Cavaretti (216 comments )
Link Flag
We like CFLs
Of course we like CFLs. In my local stores the GE brand is never in stock for long, esp the 6 bulb carboard box that makes the bulb available at the lowest costs versus the higher cost in the single or double "blister pack".
I find that GE has the most consistent light of the various brands. I know they all come from China unlike approx 15 years back when the Con Ed utility in NY sold 3 sizes of U shaped screw in bulbs for $5.00 each to get us to try and use them. Those original 3 units, Panasonic and OSRAM brands marked made in USA, are still working in my house.

I do notice that these disciussion boards are packed with people who have tangential agendas and huge boastful claims that have no basis in fact. I wish their squeals would somhow be filtered into a sub post area.
Posted by eeemang (217 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Agapito Flores invented it, GE just bought the patent.
Posted by lexx12 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Now i am selling the CFLs.During the promotion,i found that people cares more the price and its brand .
Posted by lvdianhua (1 comment )
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